Reinventing the Abbotts

Here’s a must-read from Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, published in the New York Times this week. Money quote:

Local control of schooling — which means local financing of schools — is an injustice, masked as a virtue, so deeply ingrained in the American mind that no politician in either party dare challenge it. But America’s obsession with local finance, which made perfect sense in the 19th century, is now sinking us morally and economically.

Miller argues that we ought to steal an idea from, of all people, Richard Nixon, who proposed in 1972 that we move from our outdated (even then!) system of funding public schools through property taxes and substantially increase the federal contribution. We thereby alleviate the tax burden on local communities and allow opportunities for reform, like tenure deferral or elimination and higher pay for high-poverty schools. He also describes the imbalance in a city like Chicago between “dilapidated” districts that spend $10,000 a child, yet “twenty minutes up the road you’ll find suburban schools that sport Olympic-quality pools, Broadway-style (or maybe Off Broadway) theaters and the best teachers in the state. Those schools spend more like $17,000 per pupil.”

But not in New Jersey. Here, the state courts have addressed that equity insult through a mandate that our poorest districts get funded at the level of our richest ones, i.e., the Abbott decisions. So we all chip in to create educational balance, thus righting the inequities of a school system that depends on local revenue for school spending.

In fact, we’ve taken this logic a step farther: right now our highest-funded districts are our Abbotts. We spend, on average here in New Jersey, between $12,000 and $13,000 per student. Our most expensively funded Abbott district, Asbury Park, spent $23,572 per student, and the others are pretty close. (See here the audits for the Abbott districts.) What does this mean? We spend about $10,000 more per student in Abbott districts than on students in the rest of New Jersey.

Certainly many of our kids in Abbott districts need the extra services that the money often provides because they have higher rates of learning disabilities, ESL needs, etc.. But let’s think about that for a second. Our courts have mandated a fiscally egalitarian system. In fact, we’ve moved even more progressively in that our Abbotts, which are now only an urban subset of our poorest districts, are “richer” per child than our wealthy communities. It’s well-known in NJ that a lot of that extra money never gets to the kids. From the New York Times this past May:

New audits of New Jersey's most troubled school systems question more than $83 million in spending by the heavily state-subsidized districts -- from excessive travel expenses and legal fees to Christmas parties and food.

While 71 percent of all purchase orders examined were found to be "reasonable," the auditors concluded more than 25 cents of every dollar spent by the districts was unnecessary, excessive or lacking documentation.

So, what if we took that extra $10K per poor kid per year and did something else with it? Like a 10 week summer/vacation time program at a private school with huge doses of attention, cultural exposure, intensive classes, high-performing role models? Or what if we took that annual $10K and gave a poor kid a one-on-one highly-qualified tutor in necessary subject areas? Let’s see…a NJ certified teacher usually gets about $35/hour for additional work. Let’s call it $50 for overhead and to make the math easy. That gives our hypothetical needy kid 200 hours a year of intensive education. Or what if we took that $10K, multiplied it by the number of years that kid stays in school (13, and we’re not counting preschool), got to $130,000, and put the money towards a new house for the whole family? Heck, if there were three kids in that hypothetical family they could move to the suburbs. The possibilities are endless.

We delegate the educational equity of these children to the State, which has shown us in every possible way that it is incapable of properly administering these make-it-fair dollars. Isn’t it time to reexamine this?

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